September 19, 2018; Hyperallergic
Artist lauren woods has paused her work, American Monument, at the California State University Long Beach’s University Art Museum after the museum director who collaborated with her was fired. As woods explains,
It’s paused. Not pulled…It’s paused because I am calling for true partnership. I want to offer the university the chance to engage in a restorative process and demonstrate their commitment to the work of antiracism, an impulse that is evident by the choice to hire Kimberli Meyer, who declared upfront that this was the mission and vision for her tenure.
The work is not an exhibition or something to look at; it’s an immersive, iterative experience that is meant to evolve in collaboration with the audience as a product of conversations and events that happen within and without it, connected to the subject matter of police brutality against communities of color. The centerpiece involves 25 record players emitting “audio ephemera” from incidents in which Black people have been killed by the police.
Although the school denies it, the artist says the museum deliberately interrupted the work, which examined police violence against people of color, because they were not willing to engage in the deep, critical discussion of racial injustice the work was meant to encourage. The museum says the exhibition is still open under woods’ direction, but woods is calling for the museum to engage in a restorative process that demonstrates its antiracism commitment.
In a letter she read aloud at the installation’s intended opening, woods said she had agreed to produce American Monument at UAM in large part because of director Kimberli Meyer. She said she trusted Meyer’s “support of artists who work politically and her ability to hold space and facilitate difficult content and conflict in a leadership position in the contemporary art world” and her vision to disrupt white supremacy through art.
Woods wrote, “Cal State Long Beach removed my primary and most committed collaborator and institutional steward, someone integral to the existence of American Monument…To remove a key partner for this project from the directorship of the museum at this critical point and actually expect this project to continue indicates a profound lack of understanding about what this ‘work’ actually is.”
A week before American Monument was set to open, woods provided transcripts of all the audio, which the administration had requested. The next day, Meyer was fired.
Meyer, who is white, said she was not given any warning or explanation for her termination. The university has said that her firing was “part of a longer-term process” and related to performance issues, not to American Monument.
Woods said that Meyer’s firing was more about her “unofficial mandate to address difficult issues of race and power” and her atypical leadership style, which explicitly addressed anti-racist frameworks in conversation with staff. Meyer told Asia Morris at the Long Beach Post that “justice should be a more central component of how we think about museum practice.”
She told the Los Angeles Times, “As director, my vision was to really try and take on the development of an anti-racist museum practice there—structural racism is everywhere, and cultural institutions have power, so how can that power be utilized to disrupt white supremacy? And this was my first big project there.”
Of woods, Meyer said, “she was the first artist I called” to create a work upon her appointment two years ago.
From the beginning, says woods, the administration was resistant to the full vision of the project. In the past, audio has been broadcast not just inside the gallery but out in the plaza, and American Monument calls for this; the museum’s own description reads, “sound is not only heard inside the museum space, but simultaneously displaced outside the museum into locations unknown to the viewer. Visitors unwittingly activate this sound intervention in public space.” However, says woods, the sound is actually limited to the gallery. “They censored this,” she said. “Out of their fear, the university is not supporting this. I thought, ‘can I work with a university that won’t stand up against police brutality?’”
The artist says she is still open to a restorative process that would lead to reopening the monument and engaging in the collective authorship it intends. What she would need to see from the administration is acknowledgement that this is not an isolated artwork or an exhibition to be managed, but an opportunity to engage in the enormous work of dismantling white supremacy. She says that re-hiring Kimberli Meyer and engaging in “true partnership” would demonstrate a commitment to that work.
The museum’s administration has created a microcosm of some of the most problematic dynamics faced by people of color when attempting to address issues of racism and equity. They are not willing risk the discomfort of staging the full vision of woods’ work, which would confront passers-by as well as museum-goers with the brutal and painful recordings. They did not recognize that woods’ willingness to engage so openly in this difficult work was predicated on the trust and commitment to the work of anti-racism she and Meyers shared. And by continuing to insist that the exhibition is ongoing, when its creator has stated so clearly that it is paused, they continue to misunderstand the deep work that must go into using art as a starting point for conversations about race.—Erin Rubin